Catch You on the B-Side
Soul music is built on the back of the little guy. As I’ve mentioned before in this column, most of Motown’s classics were recorded by a group of little-known musicians called the Funk Brothers. They put together the backing music for almost all of the record label’s hits—in fact, according to the documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” they have between them more number 1s than the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys combined. Other soul labels worked in a similar way. For example, Stax Records employed Booker T and the M.G.’s as their studio band, where they recorded songs for the likes of Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and Sam & Dave.
New York has a surprisingly complicated relationship with soul music. Strangely enough for a city that has consistently been at the forefront of all aspects of African-American culture—from the Harlem Renaissance through jazz and the birth of hip-hop to the present day—it never produced a home-grown soul scene. For a brief period in the ’60s it passed its cultural mantle to several cities that frankly seem like backwaters when compared to the Big Apple: places like Detroit, Philadelphia, Memphis, and Muscle Shoals. In fact, I would argue that the city played an active role in killing off soul music, as disco—a movement that exploded out of downtown Manhattan in the mid ’70s—replaced soul and funk as the main form of dance music. However, hip-hop, the other great New York cultural invention of the ’70s, has done more to preserve and popularize soul than anything else.
In the early ’70s Leroy Burgess had a big problem. His Harlem-based soul band Black Ivory was struggling to stay above water in a town without a big soul market and on a label that didn’t have the resources to promote its music beyond the East Coast. Even worse, as the years trundled along disco got bigger, DJs stopped spinning soul, and the clubs stopped hiring soul bands. Eventually, Burgess would jump ship and make a name for himself as a producer—working for artists like Rick James—and Black Ivory would slowly fall apart.
Rock guitarists have all the fun. They get to stand at the front of the stage with the lead singer and play flashy solos—which are run through about eight different electronic filters)—and bask in the light of their fans’ adoration. Drummers and bass players, on the other hand, have to stand in the background and look mournfully out to the crowd, hoping that some girl might look past the frontman’s unbridled machismo and notice the sensitive soul laying down beats toward the back.
This wasn’t always the case. Back in the heady days of soul music, while the lead singers were busting out some fly, synchronized dance in the front, the guitarist and the bassist were standing together. Bassists, drummers, and guitarists were equals, all working together to lay down the foundation of the song. Guitarists didn’t get solos. Like all the other musicians, they would get a “break”—a couple of measures—in the song to do their thing before melting back into the rest of the band.
Some time in 1970—or it might have been 1969, details are a little sketchy—a little-known singer walked into De Luxe Studios in Cincinnati, cut one monster of a record, and then disappeared. Marie “Queenie” Lyons, whose album “Soul Fever” is one of the funkiest soul LPs ever to drop, sunk without a trace. She hasn’t recorded since.
For a while in the late ‘60s, things seemed to be going Lyons’ way. She was a regular on the Chitlin’ Circuit—a network of venues across the country that catered to black performers and audiences—and was even hired by James Brown to be one of his “Funky Divas.” She released a couple of singles on De Luxe in 1969, a year before “Soul Fever” came out. But like so many talented performers before and since, Lyons couldn’t catch a break, and her incredible brand of hard-rocking R&B has only been appreciated by soul-crazed audiophiles such as myself. That changes now.
Sometimes I feel like writing for the Arts Board is a bit like being a defense attorney. Granted, there are some things on which we all agree (shout out to Kendrick Lamar and Pokemon Blue), but a large part of my artistic taste has to be defended. Not in a man-the-barricades, Battle of the Alamo sort of way, but in a more nuanced, “Inherit the Wind” fashion. My love and appreciation of certain things has to be eloquently proven to be definitively good (or at least not shit) in front of a jury of my peers.
As a second semester senior, I am using this column as my closing statement on Crimson Arts. I have chosen to use 600 to 800 words, every other week, to defend the relevancy of a select group of soul B-sides. B-sides have been sold on the reverse side of a vinyl record—the A-side was the big hit you generally wanted to buy when you went to the record store back in the day. None of the songs I chose were actually B-sides, but like the songs thrown on the back side of the single, they have been masked by their more popular or commercial counterparts. Hopefully, this column will help bring some of the songs I love out of the shadows of the hit singles so that they can bask in the light they deserve. None of these particular songs are reviled. In fact, I would say most of them are not particularly well known. But hopefully, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, by the end of this semester and this column, you will be completely and utterly convinced that the music I bring to your attention is still very much relevant.